Backing a winner
Rupert Murdoch may well bring his papers in behind Sir Keir - but how great is his influence in Britain nowadays? Paul Demarty investigates
As part of the promotional tour for his new book on Rupert Murdoch, The fall (which I reviewed last week1), Michael Wolff gave an interview to Politico, the political news website (owned, it so happens, by the company bearing the name of that great German reactionary press baron, Axel Springer).
Among other things, he speculated that Murdoch, or the people who will be nominally in charge of his affairs after his pseudo-retirement, may yet bring his British holdings behind Sir Keir’s Labour Party next year:
“He’s done it before. Could he do it now? For sure,” Wolff said when asked if Murdoch could back Labour. “I think the voice of his daughter in London is an important voice,” Wolff added, referring to Elisabeth Murdoch, who is based-in the UK. “And I think that if he saw a Labour government being to his benefit, he would of course support it. If he saw Labour as a certain winner, his support would begin to bend in that direction.”2
Sir Keir would no doubt welcome such a move; his tenure as Labour leader has more or less been a Tony Blair tribute act, with the promises of fiscal probity, the army of youngish clones being forced through in selections, and the ruthless intolerance of dissent on what remains of the Labour left (in this area, if in no others, Starmer exceeds the achievements of his model).
He moved quickly to bring Peter Mandelson back on board, whose pithy summary of the last few decades of Labour’s general election returns - “lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose” - indicated the direction of travel. More recently, Starmer and Blair have themselves appeared in public together.
Getting the Murdochs on board would complete the picture. It was undoubtedly a significant moment in Blair’s rise; sheer exhaustion with close to two decades of Tory rule may have near inevitably entailed a Labour victory in 1997, but the thumping margin was surely abetted by the extravagantly obvious corruption and endless scandals that dogged the John Major government. The shift of the Sun, Times and their Sunday sister papers to Labour was quite decisive in creating the impression of unlimited incompetence and graft. All bourgeois governments, after all, are corrupt; but not all are seen to be corrupt. There are no scandals without scandal-sheets.
Of course, 1997 was a very different time in many respects. The media landscape has changed markedly. Blair fought, let us say, the last two general elections in which the internet played no more than a trivial role. Considering the effective neutering of broadcast news in this country by ‘impartiality’ guidelines, print had a free run to set the agenda. If there was some hubris in the famous claim, made in 1992, that “it’s The Sun wot won it”, the power was undeniable.
It is at least questionable now (and Wolff’s book does question it). The Sun is no longer profitable; it seems likely that the Daily Mail is more influential, thanks to its more aggressive posture on the web (The Sun wasted years behind a paywall - a decision which is generally accepted to have been a total disaster). The Mail, however, cannot take its influence for granted, since there is a whole jungle of far-right digital media organisations out there, funded lavishly by psychopathic billionaires. The papers have to sing for their supper; and, while legacy media branding makes a difference, there is no longer quite the same glamour of invincibility.
We might ask who, out of Murdoch and Starmer, needs whom the more. “It’s The Sun wot won it” is a cheerful boast, but also an albatross. In order for Murdoch to get anything in return for his support, people must believe that he delivers victories (or at least makes enough of a difference to earn his treats). But then it is always necessary to be on the winning side. It was not exactly a hard call in the mid-1990s, and nor is it now (in 1992, backing the Tories was a risk; and, in 2005 perhaps, backing Blair). For what it is worth, we expect the Murdoch papers to back Starmer in the end - absent some total disaster befalling brave Sir Keir. Delaying the decision allows more horse trading; but Starmer need not give anything major up unless he actually needs the leg-up, especially since he is perfectly happy playing the good ultra-Blairite anyway.
That is the paradox of Murdoch’s situation. In order to get his pound of flesh, he must appear powerful. But in order to appear powerful, he must back Starmer (assuming that the Labour lead is as unassailable as it looks), so why give him the pound of flesh?
Starmer, to be sure, has other reasons than the directly psephological to want that support. In my line of work - ‘software as a service’ - there is a high premium on landing certain companies, or even individuals, as paying customers: those whose decision is likely to signal to others that the product is worth the money (‘influencers’ in the broadest sense). For political parties in this country, press barons and companies have often served this purpose, and none more so than Murdoch.
Following the Labour conference, and despite the interruption of Starmer’s speech by yet another tiny direct-action group - you can practically hear the returns diminishing - the signalling is clear. We are back to business as usual, with the emphasis on business. Having taken a cautious distance during the Jeremy Corbyn years, the lobbyists are well and truly back, especially now that victory seems inevitable. Murdoch’s support will confirm that the bonanza is on.
One other datum is relevant here - the decline of legacy media is relative. As I discussed last week, it cannot be doubted that new digital media have caused a severe shock to the underlying business model of the press and TV broadcasting, and introduced much more competition for viewers’ attention. But, because the new media produced monopolies not of content so much as advertising, with news organisations subordinated to the great platforms, there is a coordination problem that prevents the new media from securing consensus in the old way.
So long as the Murdoch papers (and TV channels and so on) have some reach and influence, that influence is outsized, because Murdoch can coordinate their political lines. In 2016, shortly before the Brexit vote, The Sunday Times published an editorial backing ‘remain’. Murdoch was incandescent with rage; this must not be repeated on the daily. So, according to an anonymous source for Private Eye, CEO Rebekah Brooks was dispatched to have a chat with the then Times editor, John Witherow, “to put some lead in his pencil”. YouTube cannot do this to the thousands of individual culture-war ranters that make up its own ‘commentariat’.
Can this change? Perhaps. The drift in western societies is towards greater levels of control over speech, and it is easy to imagine this requiring an attack on the power of the platforms, whether through anti-trust enforcement or something else.
A rather eclectic crew of political malcontents pursue this line, from the social democratic, libertarian writer, Cory Doctorow, to many on the right and far right, who believe that they are unfairly subject to much greater censorship than the left. Suppose that there are serious efforts made by the responsible authorities, however, and the platform monopolies are broken up or subject to far more strenuous regulation. The result - as right libertarians typically argue - will be favourable ground for incumbent media organisations to flip the script, and make their relationship with YouTube and friends more like their former relationship with the paper-mill.
Doctorow objects to more centralising approaches to the problem of tech monopoly - nationalising Google, say - partly on possibilist grounds (all you have to do, after all, is enforce the laws already on the books, in theory), and partly on libertarian grounds (suppose you nationalised the platforms: would that not give a Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro too much power?) Possibilism is a red herring - in the US, at least, you have a chair of the Federal Trade Commission with a bit of, ahem, lead in her pencil for the first time in many decades; but all her suits must make it in the end through a gloriously corrupt Supreme Court. Cronyism and servility runs even stronger in British institutions (just look at the Labour conference …). The realistic option is to fight to change the parameters of what is ‘realistic’.
The Bolsonaro point is more serious, but ultimately a counsel of despair. Either the left can prevent a further slide into insane tyranny, or it cannot. The media are in enemy hands already. We need first to think of what we need, and fight for that. In that regard, the honest petty bourgeois outlook exemplified by Doctorow has some merit applied to the media. I do not think we want a single, giant, nationalised media organisation monopolising the discourse. Part of the use value of media for communists is to give voice to infinitely diverse opinions (‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’ and all that); and part of its value for the bourgeoisie is the ability to restrict what views are available - which facts are ready to hand and which buried. News is not a generic good, like an electricity supply, for example, where you simply need it to run at the correct voltage and with the AC at the correct frequency.
The platform, however, is a bit like that. From basic cloud infrastructure up to modern media applications like YouTube, the economies of scale are massive; these are natural monopolies, and must become socialised utilities, like consumer internet access, electricity and water. In so doing, we gain a very sharp weapon against the Murdochs of the world: the ability to simply put an end to advertising as a business, more or less at the flick of a switch. His papers would no longer be propped up essentially by subsidies from the capitalist class at large, but would have to fight fair.
‘The last emperor’ Weekly Worker October 5 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1461/the-last-emperor).↩︎